How independent delegates and rank and file pressure groups changed National Conference – An untold story.

Dear Friends,

Independent and unaligned delegates went to the 2015 ALP National Conference not only to input into the Party Policy Platform but with specific proposals on four major reform items promoted by Bill Shorten.

National rules reform is not easy. It is difficult to forge consensus within factions let alone across factions because differing circumstances in different States can mean a change that benefits a faction in one State may disadvantage the same faction in another.

Although our goals for reforms to increase the voice of the rank and file within the Party were closer to the Left’s, we could not breach the gap between our positions. We found it easier to reach accommodations with the Right who clearly had an onus to deliver outcomes for their Parliamentary Leader Bill Shorten.

We struck a compromise deal with the Right that delivered a direct vote for their National Conference delegate to every Party member across Australia. We also convinced the Right to reduce their Federal electorate party membership minimum from 300 to 150 for Party members in those electorates to qualify for an increase of 20% in the weighting of their House or Reps pre-selection vote – a reform that would also have been passed but for a stuff up which saw it debated but not voted on.

Unfortunately on the reform most dear to rank and file members, Senate pre-selections, neither the Right nor the Left were prepared to negotiate. Nor would either faction countenance a rule to curtail National Executive intervention in pre-selections.

We had a major victory in delivering to rank and file members voting for National Conference delegates, and although lack of success in the other areas is very disappointing, particularly delivering participation to Party members in pre-selecting Senate Candidates, the greatly increased influence of independent and unaligned delegates and rank and file pressure group at this National Conference is something we should savour and build on, both at National and State level.

Party members need to be aware that nothing in the new National rules prevent them from pursuing at State level those reforms that were not achieved as binding National Rules – I intend to start that quest now.

Hope you can find time to read the full report below.

Eric Dearricott (Convenor Independent and Unaligned Delegates 2015 Labor National Conference)

How Independent Delegates and Rank and File Pressure Groups Changed National Conference

I have been an independent delegate to the last four ALP National Conferences but the 2015 Conference was different.

Why? Because delegates representing rank and file members, not factions, for the first time in decades had the balance of power and had real input into outcomes. This time each of the factions came to us to discuss their proposals and amendments. Conference platform amendments were accepted or modified in the light of how the factions knew or thought, we, the unaligned, would vote on them. It resulted in more progressive outcomes and a more progressive platform, with, in my view, a couple of notable exceptions.

It was only through the hard work and initiative of independent and unaligned delegates that the significant reform that every member of the Party across Australia gained the right to vote directly for National Conference delegates was achieved.

Further contributing to the factions’ obligation to take heed of rank and file members was the increased influence of Party Policy groups: Labor for Refugees, Rainbow Labor and Emily’s List/Labor Women’s Network, all of whom had sufficient reach to have delegates who, although faction members, were prepared to defy their faction in support of a principle. LEAN whilst perhaps not yet at the position of the aforementioned groups ran a huge grassroots campaign in support of the 50% Renewable Energy Target which clearly helped embolden the Conference to adopt a strong and internationally credible climate change policy as one of Labor’s major election planks.

Four Independent and unaligned delegates exercised their vote freely on all issues before the Conference. Of the 397 delegates, 197 were aligned to the Right, 196 to the Left, with the four unaligned delegates: two Victorians, myself and Sandra Willis, ably supported by our proxy David Imber, and two from outside Victoria.

Clearly on any issue how the unaligned delegates voted had the potential to determine whether an amendment was won or lost – the Right needed two of our votes, and the Left three, to reach the required 199 votes for a proposal, in particular one requiring a statutory majority as rules changes do, to be carried.

As unaligned members, we believe in delegates voting on issues according to their own judgements, and although we caucused each morning and lunchtime to discuss the issues, we did not seek to bind each other on any issue or deal on policy issues – it was against our principles. On the other hand, the Right and the Left on almost every issue find ways to bind their members even on the rare occasions when they may wish to vote contrary to their group position.

It was the first time in many years that the Left had a chance to have victories on the floor of the Conference and they were keen to do so. It looked like it might happen on the morning of the first day with the Left’s “Buffet Rule” amendment which sought to remove opportunities for tax avoidance by wealthy individuals, but when we, the unaligned, were in support, the Right accepted Left amendments rather than test the numbers on the floor. It was a pattern that would recur in the course of the Conference – the Right couldn’t afford loss of face in the run up to the big votes on turning back the boats and conscience vs binding vote on marriage equality, issues on which we independents were likely to take positions which did not accord with theirs.

The debate on the motion that our policy prohibits turning back asylum seekers boats was passionate and speakers were articulate. On the Friday, it had appeared that enough Right delegates were prepared to defy their faction’s position and vote for the prohibition motion but come the debate on Saturday afternoon they had either acquiesced or had given their voting card to a proxy prepared to vote in the desired way. Some left unions delegations from some states and some Left delegates including Victorian Left politicians also voted with the Right to support the leader’s position on the issue. The two Victorian independent delegates voted to prohibit turn-backs.

The Independent/Unaligned Role in Party Reform at National Conference:

Independent and unaligned delegates went to the Conference with specific proposals on four major reform items that had been flagged by Bill Shorten: Direct member participation in election of national conference delegates, direct member participation in the pre-selection of Senate candidates, an increase by 20% in the proportion of the pre-selection vote of rank and file members in House of Reps pre-selections and curtailing intervention in pre-selections by the National Executive.

As delegates truly seeking to empower rank and file members independent and unaligned delegates usually hold like views and this Conference was no exception.

In most, but not all, circumstances Labor’s National Rules seek to form a framework within which State and Territories rules must fit, but they do not prescribe exactly what each jurisdiction must do. This causes difficulties for a unified position for the factions because in some States their groups will be advantaged by proposals and others disadvantaged – it made matters difficult for them and for us trying to work and negotiate with them. The boot was on the other foot – we had a unified position but each of the factions did not necessarily have one.

We tried not to leave anything to chance and I met with several of the lead negotiators from the Left and the Right in the weeks and days prior to the Conference and continued to do so during the Conference. Below is an outline of the negotiations and outcomes on the four issues where we sought to advance the rights and influence of rank and file Party members.

Local party member participation in the election of National Conference delegates: In April 2014 Bill Shorten had said

“Future Labor Conferences to be a mix of people from and by Labor members and those elected by State Conferences.”

The Right’s initial position was spelt out in the draft rule in the new constitution which read:

“A proportion of those delegates must be elected by local branch members and include delegates from outside metropolitan areas”

It was our view that this did not give sufficient assurance of a significant say for local Party members in determining their own National Conference delegates and we proposed that

At least 50% of National Conference delegates must be elected from and by local branch members and include delegates from outside metropolitan areas. The other delegates will be elected by State Conference.”

The Left’s initial position was that

“50% of National Conference delegates must be directly elected by all financial members of a State Branch in a single ballot and 50% must be elected by those unions affiliated to the State Branch”

The Left and Right could not find a consensus on their positions nor could they agree with ours. We could not agree with the Left’s position to enshrine in the National rules that delegates nominated by union executives (not delegates elected by the union rank and file) would take 50% of National Conference positions when almost every Party elder including those of the Left like John Faulkner and Greg Combet were advocating a reduction in union power within the Party. We then proposed

A number of National Conference delegates at least equal to the number of Federal electorates in the State must be elected from and by all eligible local branch members and include delegates from outside the metropolitan areas.”

It was a proposal that should have had appeal to all sides. It delivered a guaranteed significant proportion of delegates (43% in Victoria) to be elected by all rank and file members. For the Left in NSW it delivered direct voting rights to all member rather than Branches electing delegates to a Federal electoral Council who then chose the Conference delegate. For the NSW Right it allowed the NSW to continue its current system in which the federal electorate with the smallest number of Party members gets one delegate and the one with the biggest number also gets just one. For States like Victoria, committed to proportionality (one vote one value), it would allow them to base their ballots on areas bigger than one federal electorate (but probably not the whole state because of the delegates from outside metropolitan areas requirement). Because of the “at least” requirement, States could increase the local Party member component to 50% or more. States who desired it could change their rules to allow unions to elect a proportion of National Conference delegates.

The Right accepted our proposal, had Party legal guru Tony Lang reorganise it, and lodged it themselves. The Left resisted until the last minute, then came on board, except that the Victorian and the WA Left had included a provision that in their States a rule designed to implement had to be carried by three quarters of State Conference delegates – an effective veto on its implementation in those States and a variation unacceptable to us.

Our proposal was moved by a member of the Right and seconded by unaligned NSW delegate Michael Pilbrow – it was opposed by the Left. With 197 Right votes and 4 Left votes making 201 voters in favour, under normal circumstances it should be 2 votes clear of the statutory majority of 199 votes, but it was already late in the day and delegates had to catch planes to other states. Were there enough remaining to carry the day?

President Mark Butler called the motion lost on the voices (the Left yelled ‘No’ louder). We called for a count. There were exactly 199 ‘ayes’, the required Statutory majority. Our proposal was passed and finally all party members will have a voice in determining their National Conference delegates.

Local member Participation in Senate Pre-selections

In April 2014 Bill said “Give local Labor members a meaningful say in the selection of Senate Candidates” but the Right had included no rule in the new constitution to implement this vision.

We wanted at least 50% weighting for rank and file members in pre-selecting their State’s Senators, but given that in the ACT rank and file members already had 100% weighting, we framed our proposal to protect the rights they already had. It was:

“For Senate pre-selections, if as of July 24 2015 members who live in the State have less than 50% of the total votes, then the state branch must increase the proportion of votes for those members to at least 50%.”

The Left’s position was that Senate candidates be preselected by a ballot of all Party members in a State and a separate ballot of all Union (Executive appointed) delegates to State Conference with the weighting for each being equal. In my negotiations with the Right they indicated that they may propose a 25% weighting for local Party members. We urged them to increase this to one third (ie one of the three “winnable” senate positions) but when the final amendments were revealed the Right had no Senate pre-selection proposal.

In a conjoint debate the Left moved their proposal and then I moved and Sandra Willis seconded our motion. The Left proposal was put first and lost on the voices because both the Right and the unaligneds opposed it. Our motion was put, and although we yelled as loud as we could, four voices were not enough to carry it with both the Right and the Left opposing it.

Once their motion had lost it would have made logical sense for the Left to support our proposal – our four plus their 196 would have given a total of 200 votes, one more than the Statutory majority required for the change to be adopted. It would have delivered in each State the 50% (at least) rank and file participation the Left professed to support and kept open the ability for them to propose at State Conferences the 50% weighting for Union delegates they had sought to enshrine nationally.

Increasing the weighting of local members votes in House of Reps Pre-selections In his landmark 2014 address, Bill Shorten said

“… increase the weight given to the local members’ vote by 20% in every House of Representatives seat with more than 300 members” – In Victoria this would mean a 70:30 split in favour of local party members.”

The Right included this proposal in the new Draft Rules which read:

“For House of Representative preselections, if as of July 24 2015 members who live in the electorate have less than 70% of the total votes, then for electorates with more than 300 members the state branch must increase the proportion of votes for those members by at least 20%”

Delegates from States where they already had 100% weighting for local Party members couldn’t understand the fuss, but for States like Victoria where the local member weighting was 50%, and WA where the local member weighting was a trifling 17.5%, increasing their vote by 20% was a very important matter for Rank and file members.

The Left, led by the Victorian Left were adamantly opposed to the increase – they were understandably concerned that it would and could be a reward for branch stackers and were intent of preserving the power of the unions.

The independent and unaligned delegates supported the increase of 20% but not the 300 lower limit for a Federal electorate to qualify for the increase.

In my negotiations with the Right I advocated that there be no lower limit to qualify for an increase of 20%, pointing out that currently only 14 Hose of reps seats in Victoria had more than 300 eligible party members and all but Melbourne were safe seats. They weren’t prepared to accept no lower limit but in the end we did a deal with the Right on a lower limit of 150, a deal which would give rank and file members in another 12 Victorian seats 70% weighting in House of Reps pre-selections.

We submitted that amendment in my and Sandra Willis’ names, but on the floor it was moved by a Right delegate and seconded by myself. It was opposed robustly by the Left. A count was required and based on the previous division the proposal should have been carried but it was deferred to allow some delegates to return from negotiations to the Conference floor. The affirmative Action and the Marriage equality amendment were then dealt with and it was 6.10 pm before their completion and after that Bill Shorten gave his Conference closing speech. We could have then pressed for a vote on the 20% increase but too many delegates had departed to catch their interstate flights – rank and file members especially those from Victoria and WA had been deprived of a significant advance in democracy in their States.

Reducing Federal Executive Intervention in Pre-selections In April 2014 the Federal Leader said

“From now on intervention by the National Executive shall be the exception not the rule.”

We lodged an amendment stating

”National Executive intervention in pre-selections will be restricted to genuinely urgent and/or exceptional circumstances.

Neither the Left nor the Right were prepared to support our amendment. Given the debating time restraints of the day and the low priority accorded it by the Agenda Committee we withdrew it.

Other Important Reform Issues

Affirmative Action:

In the run up to and during the Conference we had made clear our support for a move to 50% female representation both in Parliaments and other positions within the Party to the women framing the amendments to the National AA rules. The outcome was a just reward to the determination and application of those, spearheaded by the Victorian women, who worked so hard and so long to achieve it.

Marriage Equality

The Independents went to the Conference with the goal of supporting an outcome which would maximise the likelihood of the passage of legislation to implement marriage equality in the shortest time possible. We were of the view that the Party’s policy which supports equal marriage opportunity should be binding and not a conscience vote and supported an amendment removing the conscience vote when this parliament ends thus maximising the possibility of the Coalition having a conscience vote on the issue during this parliament.

On Saturday morning at the Conference Rainbow Labor also took this position and later it became the Left’s position.

With the support of the left, ourselves and several Right delegates on the balance of probabilities the sunset clause on the conscience vote at the end of this Parliament looked likely to get up in a close vote.

However a late compromise resulted in the Leader announcing that it had been agreed that the sunset clause on the conscience vote would be at the end next Parliament and that in government within the first 100 days he would introduce legislation to implement marriage equality. The compromise was carried unanimously.

Increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in Public Office Positions held by Labor

Unaligned ACT MLA and Conference delegate Chris Bourke gained the unanimous support of the Conference for a Resolution committing the Party to increasing the Representation of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in public positions Labor holds.

What Now?

At State Level: National Rules are a guiding framework within which States Rules must conform – nothing in the National rules prohibits many of the reforms that were not successful at the 2015 National Conference from being pursued at State Conferences. In Victoria for instance, we can still propose rules that give party members a weighting of at least 50% in selecting Senate candidates, and increase the weighting of rank and file members in pre-selections not only for the House of Reps but also for the Legislative Assembly. And we can seek to enshrine in our State rules that in the next round of Legislative Council candidate pre-selections, that party rank and file Party members for the first time in 16 years Party members are allowed their right to vote! In the meantime we must mount an even more strenuous campaign to ensure that in the forthcoming State Conference delegate elections a far greater number of delegates are elected who will vote in the interests of rank and file members not in the interests and as directed by a faction.

At National Level If there are just four independent and unaligned delegates at the next National Conference we are unlikely to have the balance of power. We need to substantially increase the number of delegates voting for reform empowering rank and file Party members. We need to increase our links and numbers across the country, assist each other, establish a Labor National Non-aligned Network, and enhance our relationships with like minded groups such as Open Labor and Local Labor as we did for this 2015 Conference in Victoria.

At the Next National Conference

We learnt lessons from the 2015 Conference to be passed on to our delegates at the next Conference. We need to know who are non-aligned delegates and know it early so that we can establish common Party reform causes and know our negotiating strength – a National Non-aligned Network would be of major assistance in this.

At this 2015 Conference, despite us holding the balance of power, we were given no real role in ordering the agenda and were not even given access to the amendments until after the debates had started. It was improper, unfair, undemocratic, an alarming lesson and something that we cannot allow to happen again.

Eric Dearricott

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11 comments
  1. Matthew Donovan said:

    I’m really unimpressed with the issue surrounding the 70:30 amendment.

    I was in attendance and unaware what happened regarding its deferral.

    It being left on the table and lapsing has infuriated me as somebody who has been local and active in the reform movement for the last few years.

    Quite frankly exasperating and unacceptable.

    How do we go about getting it passed now National Conference is over?

    • eandmcot said:

      We were also exasperated at the deferral of the vote on the proposal to lift the weighting of the rank and file members by 20% (if it were currently below 70%). In Victoria this would have lifted local members weighting from 50% to 70%. In WA it would have risen from 17.5% to 37.5%. It was 6.10pm by the time a vote could have been taken on this proposal and some interstate delegates had already left for their planes. A statutory majority of 199 was impossible because the left was opposed.
      For Victorians the best hope of gaining this reform is at its next State Conference although it may be possible that the Nat Exec could intervene and impose the extra 20% on States with a low rank and file weighting for preselections.

  2. matthewdonovanau said:

    Can I ask why you couldn’t agree on the Senate preselection model?

    • eandmcot said:

      Our view was that rank and File members should have at least 50% of the weighting for Senate pre-selections. Almost every past leader plus John Faulkner and Greg Combet has said the unions should be prepared to cede some of their current power. The Left’s proposal would have enshrined the 50% Union weighting in the National Constitution. We only prescribed at least 50% rank and file and left it to each State to decide how the balance was made up so a State could have, under our proposal, chosen that 50% union input for the remainder. On the other hand they could have chosen 100% rank and file weighting as the ACT already had and which the ACT would have lost if the Left’s proposal had succeeded.

  3. matthewdonovanau said:

    I’m pretty exasperated by the 70:30 stuff up.

    I was in attendance and I was unaware of the deferral.

    What went on there?

    How do we get this done now National Conference is over?

    I’m really prepared to make a big stink about this.

    Too many people and too many groups have been working too hard to have that reform go down like that!

    • eandmcot said:

      See my reply to your first question Matthew.

  4. matthewdonovanau said:

    A good and informative post :)

    Can you please explain why the President and Vice-President weren’t empowered on National Executive with votes?

    I was floored that that didn’t come up!

    • matthewdonovanau said:

      No response to my comments guys?

      • eandmcot said:

        Very sorry for the delay Matthew. Had to catch up on what I had neglected in preparing and participating in the Conference. Hope these answers are of some assistance.

    • eandmcot said:

      It is my understanding that in the end the Left only proposed that the President and Vice Presidents be granted votes as National Conference delegates but did not press at this Conference for the equally well justified votes on the National Executive. The proposal was on the agenda but the conference closed before it could be considered.

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